When you think of Mississippi, what you do you see in your mind?
When you first think of Mississippi, what comes to mind? Could it be the idea of racist rednecks or cotton? Do you think about the poverty rate or how Mississippi is the most obese state in the Union? Maybe you are thinking that this state has nothing and is just but a big wasteland.
But Mississippi is not this big wasteland that everyone believes she is. She is unique. What makes Mississippi what she is is not in the big high rise buildings like in New York City, or her folk art center, like Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her uniqueness tantalizes the senses; sight, touch, taste, sound, smell. When that state line is crossed, you know you are here.
It's that smell of red clay and true, blue Mississippi mud. It is the smell of fresh, cut grass on a Greenville street right after a raging rainstorm. The smell is in the sizzle of fried chicken about to be pulled from the oil or sweet iced tea fresh from the pitcher. Go down a local back road asking small town folk where that best fried chicken or sweet iced tea can be found and get pulled fifty different ways. Everyone here has their opinion on what smells the best.
Now, sound can be heard everywhere. It's all around. The wind blows through the trees swaying the willow branches and knocking pine cones to the ground. It is the pinging of water against a pan sitting far too long underneath the faucet in grandma's sink. But how is this different from anywhere else? The sound is in the sizzle of that same chicken in the grease on the stove. The air is clean and carries the hit of the baseball against the metal bat all around.
When it comes to Mississippi, everything connects for a profound sensory experience. All the senses must be used to fully understand and appreciate her beauty. Mississippi's core is her people and who make their home on her land. Her history is bloody and savage, but it is her past. That past has painted a big black and white image of her present and it is all lumped together in a bad representation.
Less than two generations ago, crosses were burned in the front yards of people's homes. Innocent men, women and children were killed because their skin color was different or they thought differently than the norm. It is now two generations forward, and that perception still stands to some. Some of the outside world still perceives Mississippi's inhabitants as trigger happy, illiterate rednecks because of the image painted years ago. This is not what is true. Mississippi has a slow way of life, but that does not make her people slow-minded. Traditions and beliefs are hard to change, but the mind itself is not immune to the passage of time and history.
Now back to the imagery perception, Mississippi's history over the past hundred years can be told through her music. Many notable musicians and bands come from here, many including B.B. King and Elvis Presley, just to name a few. But the Mississippi Delta created delta blues which is the precursor to the modern blues movement. Ultimately, it is the birthplace though most people would not want to admit it. As the colorful legend goes, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil back in the 20's at the corner of 49 and 61 in Clarksdale to gain a few notable guitar licks. Nowadays, we know this is not true, but it is a good story to carry on. To describe blues, it is that slow, sultry combination of foot tapping with voice and the twanging guitar that tells of hot, humid nights and the slow cadence of crickets in the flat land fields.
If a road trip were taken through Mississippi, anything worth finding cannot be found by going down the interstate and hitting a left on Frontage Road in Jackson for a few miles. To find what is worth finding, one must look and ask. It is safe to be specific and curious. Do as Robert Frost did and take the road less traveled. One is bound to end up at a honky tonk or blues bar eating a greasy hamburger and listening to the guitar pickers of the day. Watch that blues picker as he bends that low E string as he plays the rhythms of his forefathers. Although slavery is long since silenced, deep in his memory are the old songs sung by his ancestors in the cotton fields on hot days to pass the time.
In the present, the music has evolved from the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to the hip gyrations of Elvis Presley in the 50's and 60's. They have influenced the modern day rock sounds of Three Doors Down from Escatawpa near the coast to Saving Abel from Corinth in the extreme northeast corner of the state. Stopping at another bar, one is bound to hear a town band recreate the sounds of Mickey Gilley and Mississippi's own toker, Jimmy Buffett. One might also hear the moanful renditions of Tammy Wynette and watch the tears falling into the beer listening to a Conway Twitty look-a-like.